Tag Archives: Starbucks

So, are you settled yet?


Room 632 at Glad Hotel, Yeouido. We stayed here for a month after landing in Seoul.

Ever since we moved from Singapore to Seoul two months ago, my dad has been asking me the same question every time he calls. Between, ‘how are you’ and ‘how’s the weather’, which act as the beginning and end to all our conversations, this new question makes up the vast uncharted middle. To be fair, it’s not just my dad, although he’s the most frequent and punctual inquirer, my sister, relatives, and close friends have been wanting to know the same thing.

‘Am I settled yet?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”


First sketch after landing in Seoul. The guy on the left was eating dumplings at the hotel’s breakfast table.

The day we flew into Seoul, we checked into a hotel and stayed in room 632 for the whole month of March. I remember craning my neck out of the room’s only window facing the road Uisadang-daero, and looking at the green dome of the National Assembly on my left and repeating to myself myself in a reassuring tone that we are here.

We are finally here.

We made it.

After months of planning, researching, debating, questioning the decision of moving, making pro/con lists and checklists, checking items off that checklist, after selling furniture, donating books to the library, having occasional meltdowns and then cheering ourselves up by eating at all our fav places one last time, after making trips to the Salvation Army with impossibly heavy bags, after endless packing, cleaning the apartment, handing over the keys of the apartment to the landlord and finally after saying painful goodbyes to our friends we are here.


Seen at Gontran Cherrier cafe. He was reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis about the build -up of Unites States housing bubble during the 2000s. I had a peek at the cover!

All this while I thought once we hop on that flight to Seoul, the nagging feeling of displacement, the feeling of ground shifting beneath your feet, the feeling of being in limbo, floating in ether, the neither here nor there, sitting on the threshold with one foot inside and the other outside the door kind of feeling will slip off  like a magician’s silk scarf. A pack of white doves would fly across the stage. Confetti will fall. People will applaud.

Instead my dad asks if I feel settled yet.

I should’ve. But I have a feeling that the show isn’t over. The doves fly back to the magician. There’s a second act. “Baba, we are looking for an apartment. Once we get one, we’ll be settled then”, I tell him. And to myself.


Two girls seen on subway line 9. The girl on the left had a red blotch on her face next to the nose and kept checking it out on her phone. Her friend kept reassuring her that it was nothing!

As soon as we get our bearings, we start looking for an apartment. Within a fortnight we sign the dotted line on a rent agreement. This place is much bigger than the one we lived in for 7 years in Singapore. We have a floor to ceiling shoe rack. No more shoes lying about like fallen soldiers in the hallway. There are three bedrooms, so I have space for practicing yoga. No more trying to squeeze myself in between the living room sofa and the dining table. No more pining for a luxurious reading chair with a floor lamp beside it right by my bookcase because the study can accommodate one.

We can stow away our 5 large suitcases in various niches in the walls away from view. No more shoving them under the bed and ruining the wooden slats under the mattress. The kitchen is big enough for the two of us to be working together without getting in each other’s way. “No more, ‘I’m behind you, watch out’, warnings”, I tell Baba jokingly over the phone.


People on Subway line 9

At the end of the month, we pack up again, say goodbye to room 632, the hotel staff, some of whom we came to know by name and move into the apartment. We order furniture from IKEA. We change the password of the electronic lock on the main door. We buy ourselves a frying pan, two pairs of spoons and forks, two dinner plates, bowls, one kitchen knife and a stirring spoon. We unpack our bags, hang clothes in the wardrobes, arrange the toiletries, spread the newly bought cerulean blue sheet on the bed and fluff the cushions. I even hang a pretty white and blue chequered tea towel on the oven door.

But when my dad calls again and asks the same question, my answer is laced with irritation. ” I don’t even have my own pillow...”, I say. The lump in my throat was hard to swallow. Was his need for me to be settled, chafing against the time I needed to be settled?


Seen at a Starbucks in Gangnam. 

If I had handled it better then I’d have said to him that I didn’t have my pillow or my books, my computer, my writing table, my paints, sketchbooks, or my favourite Tefal non-stick frying pan.  They arrive with the movers in a week. All 42 boxes.

And maybe when they’re here I will be finally settled. With that I’d have headed to the kitchen to whip up something warm and comforting.


A mindless doodle of few objects and sights I came across during our stay at the hotel in Yeouido.

I have never made Spaghetti Aglio E Olio quite as frequently as I did in between the time we moved to Seoul and until the movers walked in bearing my kitchen paraphernalia. Why? Not just because I’ve made it hundreds of times before but also because it is incredibly easy to prepare and doesn’t involve anything fancy in terms of ingredients or utensils. Just warm some olive oil in a pan, throw in chopped garlic and red pepper flakes, cook for 2 mins on low flame. Infusing the oil with the flavour of garlic and pepper flakes is key. Add the cooked pasta to the pan. Toss well. Done.

Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmesan on top. To this simple, rustic dish, I create variety by adding either shrimps or chicken and/or mushrooms, zucchini, green beans, chickpeas, even boiled eggs. My husband has been a saint for lapping up every strand of spaghetti cooked the same way day after day during this period. Then again, maybe not that big a saint, I realised later.

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Seen at A Twosome Place in Gangnam

When you’re in the process of adapting to everything new and foreign, all it takes is the old familiarity of an oft cooked meal to anchor you like an astronaut’s safety tether that keeps him from floating away in space. Every evening when two souls lost in a trail of thoughts and apprehensions gathered across the table in their hotel room under the glow of an overhead lamp hundreds of miles away from what they knew as home, this food brought them together and comforted them in a way nothing else did. Over forkfuls of spaghetti we made plans for the future.

We laughed and we loved. We said to each other that we’d be alright. It was a great feeling. Sacred even. In a modern vehicle, the axle plays a role in the driving, braking and steering functions. Every dinner of Aglio E Olio felt like that axle – the steady shaft at the centre of two spinning wheels.


I saw this girl doing her make up at Starbucks and I realized how no one ever says, “I’ll be right back. I have to powder my nose” anymore!

In a week, as per schedule Lucy, a short sprightly Korean lady who flicked her hair a lot while talking, knocked on our door at 9 am sharp. She was from the movers and was here to oversee the last leg of this move. Two men were bringing our boxes from a van parked downstairs at the back of the building. She handed us a sheet with numbers from 1 to 800 printed inside little squares. “As each box comes through the door, you need to check its number and cross it out on this list” she said.

No. 12…books and decorative items…put where?”, called out a tall Korean guy, walking in with a carton balanced on his shoulder. He had a thick mop of wavy salt and pepper hair and a gait that would’ve matched a business suit more than his flannel shirt and jeans which had pearly gates embroidered in cursive letters over the back pocket in lurid pink thread.  The owner of the ‘heavenly derriere’ was pointed towards the study where the bookcase was. My husband crossed a box on the sheet. I exhaled.


 Men chatting at the table next to ours at cafe Cattle & Bee in Gangnam 

No. 37, TV…No. 8, kitchen utensils.’

As more boxes came in I exhaled some more. For days on end I had this feeling that every ounce of energy in my body was being used in blowing up this giant inflatable zeppelin. And now the job was done. I could set it free to float in the sky. The pressure was off.

No. 10“, pearly gates, called.

A big fat hen. I wish I said that out loud.

No. 27“, he called again.

Gateway to heaven. I definitely wish I had said that out loud.

It took us eight hours to put away the contents of those 42 boxes after Lucy and her entourage left. They had unpacked every box and laid their contents on the floors of the respective rooms where they belonged. It was all very neat and organised. I had horrid dreams of my books drowning in the sea but they made it in one piece without a scratch. Everything arrived in pristine condition except two casualties discovered in the souvenirs carton. Eiffel tower had a severed leg and Statue of Liberty had fractured her arm.


Saw this man chowing down on a large salad at Gontran Cherrier.

But that didn’t matter so much because I had finally reunited with my pillow. Everything that made my home in Singapore was here in Seoul. Things that needed attention now were in the realm of home improvement like hanging picture frames on the walls, buying plants and decorative items, getting cleaning equipments like mops, detergents, dishwashing liquids and so on.

So when Baba called a few days later and before he could ask me anything, I volunteered how impossibly difficult it was to get a proper ironing table. “They’re either too big and expensive or too small and fragile“. Then I ranted about how the tap water isn’t potable and how I didn’t find green beans or minced chicken at any supermarket and how ridiculously expensive watermelons were and how cable network had barely any English channel and how every letter box in the building was without locks and how banks in Korea do not have the provision of opening joint accounts.

I guess I answered his question even before he could ask it.


Seen on subway line 9. This guy had really chunky boots on with bright yellow laces! I had so much fun sketching him.

But that didn’t stop me from asking it to myself. And probing even further. What does ‘being settled’ even mean? How long until you can be fully settled? What did my dad actually want to know from me?

Maybe we have different definitions of the same word. To my 65 year old man who is 4034 kms away from his daughter, being settled may just mean her safely landing at her destination and checking into a hotel. As far as he was concerned, the move was done. Singapore was behind us. I should’ve settled. A month later when we moved into the apartment, surely then I should’ve settled. And finally when our shipment arrived, that should have been the ultimate finish line of being settled. Maybe he would’ve cheered from the metaphorical sidelines if only I said the word.

But I didn’t. Because we were never on the same page. The dictionary definition of ‘settle’, a verb, is to establish a residence. A residence has been established. My father expects a crisp past perfect but I am dwelling in the present continuous tense.

I am settling.


Sketched these girls on the night of South Korea’s Presidential Elections at Angel-in-us Cafe near our house. They were the most fidgety people I’d ever drawn but in the end I got them down safely on paper!

Out of the 7 years we lived in Singapore, I can’t say exactly how much time it took for us to settle when we moved there from Munich. But at the end of those 7 years if a newly bought shoe felt too tight, I knew the exact place to get it fixed under $10. If I needed to buy a rice cooker I could list at least 5 places to buy it from. I had a ‘fish guy’ who’d only sell me the freshest fish and a ‘grocery guy’ who at the sight of me would leave other customers waiting to disappear inside his shop and fetch me the freshest yoghurt he had made that day.

I knew which movie theatres had the most leg room and the cafes where you could be served unparalleled Egg Benedict or Kouign Amman. I had friends with whom I could have deep spiritual discussions and friends who I could call in the middle of the night if I got into trouble. Did all this make me feel settled? A resounding, yes. Did all this take time to build? Yes, again.

And I need that time here because I start from scratch. Because trying to replicate your old life in a new place is utter foolishness. Believe me, I tried.


Seen at Gontran Cherrier. 

So instead of ranting about everything that I couldn’t’ find or isn’t easily available or is different from what I was used to, I surveyed the nearby supermarket to make a note of every thing that is available. I researched recipes of dishes I could make using those ingredients and on my 4th visit to eMart I exited with a packet of kimchi, gochujang (Korean chilli paste), sesame oil and mung bean sprouts. My kimchi-bokkeum-bap may have been low on taste but it was a pathbreaker.


A girl with lurid pink hair. Seen at Cafe Cattle & Bee, Gangnam.

Since then, we’ve strolled under cherry blossom trees at Yeouido Park and drank coffee and licked ice creams with the locals sitting on benches with our faces to the sun; found a shop at Itaewon that sells all kinds of Indian spices; and gone on a weekend trip to the port city of Busan. We’ve learnt how to separate the trash into common garbage and recyclables, how to operate our washing machine with labels in Korean and gotten used to buying bottled water just like everybody. I have started sketching in cafes again (as you can see from these drawings), which are aplenty here. And at the end of this month I’m going to join a book club and then take Korean language classes.

A more expensive ironing table that is nothing like the one we used to own before has been bought since. Our kimchi fridge, a common fixture in all Korean apartments still remains empty but I am hopeful that it’ll have a chance to serve its purpose one day.


Seen on subway line 9

Sometimes when I am looking out from the window of our apartment in Gangnam my eyes glaze over and I feel like I’m living in this very intuitive and extremely realistic dream from which I would wake up any minute and find myself in my old bed in Lincoln Road. I’d stop the alarm, tie my frizzy hair – by courtesy of Singapore’s humidity – in a tight bun and walk into the kitchen to make us some tea.

Settling, as I have found out is a work in progress. It requires time and patience. It is also a lot of fun if you don’t take things too seriously. But most of the time it feels like climbing an incline. You are allowed to make as many stops as you like to take a breather and to absorb your surroundings like those sure footed goats I once saw bounding up an almost erect mountain in Greece. From a sailboat on the bluest of blue seas, I envied their view and the wonderful rhythm of their steps. Two months in Seoul and I am already beginning to see the view but when I find my rhythm and I will, I hope my dad calls.









A little victory and the big win

Two kinds of people attract unwarranted attention at cafes.


Out of office but chained to work – I saw this guy sitting at our neighbourhood Starbucks with one hand on his head and the other checking emails on the phone oblivious of the beautiful breezy evening, the sound of  birds and music flowing in the air. 

One, babies because they are tiny, cute, cuddly and non-judgemental humans who if you happen to catch after a recent feed-poop-nap session will bear smiles that will warm the cockles of your heart. From what I’ve seen one doesn’t even need to know the baby. It is perfectly acceptable to nod, wave or point at them from your table  without offending anyone around.


(L) How many ways are there to hold a pen? This girl was wielding it like a dagger! (R) Here’s a elderly woman seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery wearing a short polka dotted dress and red lipstick( with matching nail polish!) rocking her wrinkles and laughing with wild abandon. I never liked the phrase – ‘twilight years’. This is how you turn it upside down.

The other kind is me. I have nothing in common with babies. But I still get pointed out, fussed over and smiled at by strangers. Shy reluctant children have been shoved in my direction by mothers with utmost urgency.”Go kiddo go, see what she’s doing!”. And then right behind the kiddo you find the guardian standing at a safe distance peering at me with equal interest.


Spotted at Coffee Academics on Scotts Road. This guy demolished a heaped plate of food in mere seconds and left. I had a really hard time keeping up!

The sight of an adult playing with crayons and watercolours in a room full of adults doing adult stuff like buying bread and drinking coffee is often met with the same amount of incomprehension as is reserved for all kinds of anomalies. What’s interesting though is how people react to this anomaly!


(L) Even though it’s difficult to hold a large baguette sandwich in one hand and eat, do not ever, not even for once free the other hand by letting go of the phone –  that kind of guy.

That same reluctant kid would turn around chuck the phone, notepad or whatever he was being engaged with and demand a sketchbook pronto. If not that day, I will see him or her appear the next weekend armed with a colouring book, efficiently applying a green crayon over a lion’s mane. Little victory!


(R) Quick sketch of my husband eating his free birthday cake (from Starbucks), reading Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy on kindle and watching the 5th One Day International : India vs NZ on his phone, all at the same time. Indians beat the kiwis by 190 runs that night. 

Adults on the other hand need an acceptable reason for doing something they were weaned off in fifth grade. “You must be an architect/ engineer/designer.” – I am not asked this but told. Only then can they explain to themselves why I have the permission to sketch or paint and they don’t because they are none of these things.


A passionate speaker seen at Starbucks who used her hands much more than her voice to get the point across. I was very convinced even though I don’t understand a word of Malay.

I do it for fun, I say and am met with blank stares. Even an year ago I’d have been uncomfortable with such attention and would have looked up Craigslist for a cloak of invisibility. But not anymore. I’ve been sketching rather feverishly over the last couple of months to know that practice not only makes perfect, it also makes courage and confidence in reasonable amounts.


(L) This guy had a laptop cover that looked exactly like a shiny marble countertop! I had a teeny weeny urge to chop vegetables on it but it passed very quickly. (R) This lady was eating alone at the table next to mine and before taking each bite she’d hold the sandwich in front of her with both hands and contemplate.

So now I hold my ground and sound convincing not to defend my actions lest I am adjudged frivolous but to get at least one of them to pull out the child that got buried under years of adulthood. And sometimes it works.


The most common sight at our neighbourhood Starbucks is that of students of all ages studying alone or in large groups.

I am plied with questions starting from how expensive my sketchbook is to what paints I use to where I bought the paint box from. And then I’m invariably told how much each one of these people loved to draw when they were small.


(L) Girls in cropped halter neck tops, nose rings, green hair highlights and beaded bracelets. The cuddly soft toy didn’t seem to fit in but it was trying very hard. (R) Stripey here had little hope of getting his assignment done that night coz he constantly looked up to check out every passing girl. 

I don’t see them wielding a sketchbook the next day or the week after but the stares become infrequent. Maybe some day I’ll catch one of them absentmindedly picking up a stray pencil and doodling the coffee mug they’ve been drinking from on the back of a receipt. What a big win that would be!


Behold the rare sight of a man holding and reading an actual newspaper, turning pages instead of scrolling up and down or zooming in and out on a screen. Sorry about the morbid headline but that’s what he was reading.


Two random people eating and drinking at the same cafe, minding their own businesses, oblivious of each other’s presence but united on a double spread.  I like when that happens.


This lady looked like someone who’d look fabulous in a mid 19th century Victorian gown complete with a flowery hat, silk gloves and a parasol! 

These sketches above are from my latest sketchbook of random people I’ve seen in various cafes in the city along with my observations. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I have enjoyed drawing them!

Things no one sees

are the ones that keep me occupied for hours. If you’ve read my earlier post –  Had people watching – you must be aware of my penchant for practicing flânerie, especially at cafes and how I channel my people watching / observation skills into making art.


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Just a guy alone with his coffee savouring a quiet moment

So far it’s been fun! Sketching is a mindful exercise and extremely gratifying, but sketching people is enlivening. There isn’t a moment of dullness or monotony because no two people you sketch can be alike. They differ not just in their attire and mannerisms but also in their interaction with/reaction to their surroundings.

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This couple started out acting all lovey-dovey, listening to the same music, leaning on each other, holding hands and then everything went downhill from there in the next 10 mins until one of them stormed out. Ah, the capriciousness of love.

These people captured in my sketchbook can be generically labelled as say, the coffee drinkers of Singapore because that’s what they’re technically there for but that’s not the only thing they do or if you’re observant enough, that’s not the only thing you see them doing. I once sketched a chain-smoker with a lot of swagger sipping coffee and blowing smoke into the ‘No smoking ‘ sign right next to him.

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Two very fashionable ladies and a guy sitting in between them with hand on his head. One of the women was ranting in Japanese and the two were mostly zoned out, I think.

That same week I had also sketched a girl who was part of big group that ate and drank quite liberally at the cafe but right before leaving she was the only person who cleared every bit of trash on their messy table before walking out.

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This bunch of pimply faced boys were from Anglo Chinese School and were studying ‘O level Topical Physics’ at Starbucks. They were all plugged in to their phones, swinging shoulders from time to time and sipping Macha lattes. These surely are different times!

With each sketch I get to peep into a stranger’s life for few minutes and capture them living an ordinary moment which otherwise would have gone unnoticed, unaccounted for. For example the Chinese grandma wearing jade bangles and a frumpy top on what seemed like her first trip to Starbucks was another fun subject to sketch.


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(L) This cute grandma had a strident voice, a blue clamp holding her red hair and jade bangles around her frail wrists. From the way she surveyed the place and the patrons sitting around her from time to time and inspected her cup of latte, it seemed like her first time here at our neighbourhood Starbucks. Don’t miss her colourful shopping trolley!

She looked out of place and excited at the same time to be holding probably her first cup of latte in her wrinkled hand. She may never know this, but 2 meters away I was touched to have witnessed that moment and document it in my sketchbook.


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It was really hard to believe that this guy was eating Tiong Bahru Bakery’s Kouign Amann ( which by the way is top notch) with such indifference.

All sorts of students, specially pimply restless school students plugged in to their music sipping frothy matcha latte are common sight at the local Starbucks and always make great subjects for drawing.


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(L) – Serious discussion taking place. The guy in the centre doesn’t look amused and kept quiet through the entire conversation.

You see them day and night hunched over a pile of books, fervently highlighting something or the other with coloured markers on their notebooks with their laptops open on the side. This subculture is unique to Singapore, something I haven’t witnessed in any other country I’ve travelled to and therefore having them in my sketchbook is also special.

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(R) The rare sight of someone reading a physical book and then looking up to think about and then reading again. That’s an indie comic book in her hand and a guitar by her side.

It’s hard to imagine that only three months ago I had this incredible fear of drawing people which I write about in the post What if and how I get over it and now have come to enjoy it because it feels as if for once I’m not rushing through life and letting it pass by me but consciously stopping to smell the flowers.

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(L)- This woman had an impermanent tattoo on her hand. The word ‘Love’ written in bold with a glitter pen stood out and and yet seemed incongruous with her austere style. She was alone and seemed lost in thoughts. (R) – I spotted these two women on a late Sunday night. They were mostly gregarious but at one point I saw one of them point finger at the other in a menacing way.

Well, I don’t know where it’s going to take me and if anything will come out of this but as long as I cherish these little stolen moments and revel in the ordinary stories of ordinary people, I will continue to document them in sketchbooks and share with you. Hope you can stop by!

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(L)- A chain smoker with a lot of swagger. He didn’t care about the ‘No Smoking’ sign next to him; (R)  – My husband reading ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ on the day it got released.






A month’s worth of hosting

Two grinning faces, actually three, including the portly Malay helper who was pushing my dad’s wheelchair ( probably happy from sighting relief beyond the arrivals gate) waved at us from the luggage carousel. I wrapped my scarf tightly around my shoulders; it wasn’t just the air-conditioning giving me chills.

Ever since we moved to Singapore, we’d been wooing our parents to visit us. Five years later and about a month ago, I and my husband set off one early morning to pick my parents up from the airport.

Baba sitting on the window sil and playing Scrabble first thing in the morning

Baba sitting on the window sill and playing Scrabble first thing in the morning accompanied by a cup of tea and two Jacob’s cream crackers.

Even though we keep in touch i.e virtually ‘nudge’ each other everyday when a scrabble move is due, it was thrilling to see my parents in person and most importantly find them emerge out of the immigration gates unscathed and unflustered.

Most first time visitors i’ve met wax lyrical about Singapore’s airport, it being one of the world’s best or at least rave/ rant about inflight food and entertainment, which make the usual post flight conversation, but my parents, and I should’ve known, drove straight to the point. “I can’t download Whattsapp on my tab, how soon can you fix it?” asked my dad as I bent down to embrace him and my mom said she had to pee, urgently.

Mom playing scrabble too, only when every other member in the house is playing that game

Mom fiddling with her phone or perhaps playing Scrabble but only as a last resort

Back home, unpacking and settling down went unexpectedly smooth. Making a tiny couple’s apartment habitable for 4, that too for a month wasn’t easy but after an extensive and exhaustive bout of spring cleaning (I am backslapping myself as I write this)  I had miraculously created space inside wardrobes, bathrooms, bookcase (since my dad travels with at least 6 books) and on the study table. Not only did I arrange for extra mattresses and linen, I also found clever nooks in the house to store these bulky items neatly without making our pad look any smaller.

Icing of the cake – my husband got a leaking pipe replaced the day before our guests arrived, so we were even mould-free. Only if the wooden door to our electrical closet – hoarding space for all displaced items in the house – would hold up for a month without crashing under pressure, we’d pass off as perfectly conscientious hosts.

Baba's Samsung Tab encased in a bright orange cover became a permanent fixture on this table because he would hog this charging point day and night.

Baba’s Samsung Tab encased in a bright orange cover became a permanent fixture on our TV table because he hogged this charging point for the entire duration of his stay.

The door did hold up for a month but circumstances didn’t. The thick pall of haze over Singapore (from forest fires in Indonesia) rendering the air quality ‘unhealthy’ compromised imminent sightseeing plans. A family emergency on my husband’s side needed him to fly out for 2 weeks the next evening, leaving two overeager elderly raging to make the most of their first visit abroad at the hands of their hapless daughter scrambling for plan B.

I didn’t have plan B. What I had instead  was this incipient fear. Retired folks like my parents being creatures of habit become petulant once their rhythm is upset.  How long until the fascination and wide eyed wonder of the new place started to wear off?  Surely the novelty of clean and safe roads, manicured parks, disciplined traffic, cars that didn’t honk and gave way to pedestrians and the miraculous ability to ‘drink water straight from the tap’ couldn’t keep them dazzled for a month? I had to give them a routine and get them to repeat it everyday till it became second nature.

And so I did.

Baba would often relate these simple yet pithy sayings that he read/heard somewhere. I thought of writing them down one day.

Baba would often relate these simple yet pithy sayings that he had read/heard somewhere. I thought of writing some down one day while he was so eagerly delivering them.

Mornings would be dedicated to tea and Jacob’s cream crackers. My trusty canary yellow teapot which sadly met its end in the line of duty, entertained my guests with countless cups of champagne coloured beverage from  Japanese Green Tea, Chamomile to lemongrass, lavender and Chilli Roiboos infusions. While I let the tea steep, my dad, always in white pyjamas and vest when indoors, would sit on the wide window sill and watch the constant retinue of cars, schoolchildren, infants in prams and fancy dogs being walked by their owners, all the while clutching his Samsung Tablet encased in a lurid orange cover.

If he made a word of considerable points in Scrabble, my level headed father, a man of few words and fewer displays of emotion would pump his fists into the air and let out a victorious cry – ‘yes, yes, yes’.  He’d also bite into his biscuits and dribble the crumbs on the floor. I started skipping all the double and triple words just to watch him get animated every morning, and then clean the floor inconspicuously with a brush and a dust picker.

Reading the book 'Chanakya's Chant' and watching a hindi comedy flick on Youtube

We would always watch a movie post dinner. Here’s my dad reading the book ‘Chanakya’s Chant’ and watching a hindi comedy flick on Youtube

My mom would sit on the sofa, propped against two cushions, sip her tea and either continue to read a particular travel article on Antarctica she’s been following or fiddle with her phone like the rest of us. Meanwhile I’d check the hourly psi readings and declare if it would be safe to venture out of the house. If all was fine, we’d quickly pick a place to visit and I’d try to convince dad to come with us and eventually get into an argument because he wouldn’t want to exhaust me by pushing his wheelchair and I wouldn’t want to leave him behind. Some days he let me win and some days I let him win, especially when I and mom wanted to go shopping.

Baba's precise infallible routine contains an hour of meditation twice a day. I've caught him nodding off couple of times while at it but he denies the accusation fervently.

Baba’s infallible routine contained an hour of meditation two times a day. I’ve caught him nodding off couple of times while at it but he fervently denies the accusation.

There were days when our mornings would stretch longer and take on a didactic tone with my dad drifting into a discourse about religion, spirituality and life in general and how to live it, occasionally concluding in pithy sentences drawn from the Gita, Vedas or his life’s experiences. My mom, having heard these before would contribute background score to his soliloquy in the form of soft snoring sounds.

On the days we stayed in, I’d cook an elaborate lunch, usually cuisines my parents were new to, from Greek Lemon Chicken, to Indonesian Red curry, Vietnamese Rice paper rolls to SriLankan Prawns. They’d always fuss over the dish when I laid it down on the table, saying how beautiful it looked and how good it smelled and then surreptitiously grab some ketchup for added flavour until I started sweetening my dishes more than my taste buds would allow.  We were getting along perfectly well.

Evenings would mean a walk (minus the wheelchair) to the park and then on to our neighbourhood Starbucks, where he'd first read his books and then play scrabble.

Evenings would mean a walk (minus the wheelchair) to the park and then on to our neighbourhood Starbucks, where my dad would read his books and update his scrabble moves. He’s very competitive and somewhat of a sore loser!

Around 3 in the afternoon, come rain or shine, my dad would hobble to a quiet corner in the house, spread a mat on the floor, set the timer for an hour and sit down to meditate. Though on several occasions I’ve found him in a state – shoulders slumped, back relaxed, head tilted forward, taking deep slow breaths – that could only indicate post-lunch dip, when confronted he would fervently deny the accusation and counter it each time with some iteration of ‘I could not have dozed off. I was alert the whole time’. I sketched him in the said posture one afternoon to tease him and also to prove my point but then didn’t have the heart to show it to him.

Nearly 10 years ago, a severe cerebral haemorrhage had permanently incapacitated my dad, rendering him unfit not just for his day job as a mechanical engineer at a Steel Plant but for performing simple tasks like buttoning his shirt or wearing a shoe. Then again, I haven’t met a more positive person who’s picked himself up from deathbed and constructed a life without regrets. Years of care, support and physiotherapy may have improved his situation by a minuscule percentage, the rest was his own doing, with sheer will power and conviction. I couldn’t trample on that, not even in good humour!

This is the trusty wheelchair that saved the trip - I had to draw it before returning, although the moment wasn't quite agreeable.

We had hired a wheelchair for a month to take dad around for sightseeing with ease. I had to draw it before returning it the next day.

Unless the haze was terrible, on most evenings I would take my parents to the neighbourhood park, where they’d spend a little time on a wooden bench watching people go about their businesses, and then walk another 150 meters to the mall to lounge at a cafe, listen to jazz, drink lattes, read books and most importantly, at least for my dad – play scrabble until dinner. Back home, we’d huddle on the sofa, put on a Satyajit Ray flick on Youtube and end the day in the throes of monochromatic Kolkata.

After my husband was back we did manage to take them around Singapore, and though it was precious to watch my parents get excited at every sight just as we did when we moved in here, it is the rhythm of our days together – the little tasks that cumulatively formed our routine –  that I’ve come to miss the most after they left. Goodbyes are hard and this one was too, but then again, ‘distance’ – however menacing it is in the beginning, is restorative eventually. With each passing day our memory fades out the disagreeable and holds in light only the best of times. Like when I taught my dad the phrase ‘ni hao‘ (‘How are you?’ in Mandarin) one day and he went crazy with it by testing it out on every unsuspecting cab driver, shop assistant, waiter and school kid that crossed his path till the end of their trip. It was incredibly funny!




Trip to the Antipodes series : Melbourne


25th December 2014 : Singapore to Melbourne  –  The flight was decorated with mistletoe and holly and in the middle of service, flight attendants pinned snowflake shaped brooch to their uniforms. “As a part of our special Christmas Menu, we have turkey today! Would you like to opt for that, Ma’am?” I was asked by the flight attendant, with immense hope and expectation, as if there was some tacit Christmas turkey consumption target, she had to meet and my choice of meal would greatly affect her cause. No thanks. I’ll stick with chicken I said and tried to smile as bright as her. I really tried. “How about you Sir?”, she moved on. ‘Ummm..what the heck..I’ll try the turkey!’ said my husband with enough benevolence for both of us.

Sketched on flight from Singapore to Melbourne

25th Dec + 26th Dec/ Melbourne :  Inflight sketch from from my seat; Hot chocolate and muffin at Starbucks; Rice paper rolls bought on Flinders street consumed at Fed Square with seagulls and people.

In the evening, we jostled against hundreds of people to watch the Christmas light show projected on Melbourne’s Town Hall, had great dinner, clicked some praiseworthy photos of Flinders station, sipped warm coffee and munched on deliciously fluffy chocolate muffin at Starbucks. If the first day on the trip is any indication of what’s to come, we were pretty optimistic. Then, came the abrupt uncalled for, unprepared for rain right after the coffee people shooed us away at closing time. Without umbrella and jackets, we shivered in the cold under the shop’s awning in the peak of Australian summer, and after a very long wait, deep in the throes of the night with hobos and drunk for company, we finally trudged back to the hotel in clumsy rain soaked shoes.

Karma caught up with me. I should’ve accepted the turkey. And with grace.

26th December 2014: On our Own – As much as I love the Indian cricket team, I didn’t accompany my husband to the famous Boxing Day Test match between India and Australia held at Melbourne Cricket Ground. While my husband walked to his pilgrimage early morning, I set out to soak the city, explore, observe, experience and make impressions. It was a day with no itinerary and no agendas. I perched on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral and watched a sea of people, cars, trams criss crossing each other at the traffic signal.

26th Dec / Melbourne : Flinders Station sketched from the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral

26th Dec / Melbourne : Flinders Station sketched from the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was extremely breezy. I had a hard time holding on to the paper.

When my interest waned, which was by the time I finished this sketch, I crossed the road, bought myself some Vietnamese lunch from a Flinders street eatery and came back to Fed Square to finish it. The seagulls begged and begged for scraps but I was too hungry. The inimitable Immigration Museum consumed my entire afternoon and in the evening I went back to the same Starbucks for coffee and was quite pumped when the lady at the counter got my name right the first time. That instantly erased memories of the night before.

26th Dec / Melbourne : Right in front of the Starbucks was a green patch where stood this giant Christmas tree which everybody queued to take pictures with; Greek Dinner in the heart of Greek precinct

26th Dec / Melbourne : Right in front of the Starbucks was a green patch where stood this giant Christmas tree which everybody queued to take pictures with; Greek Dinner in the heart of Greek precinct was chicken and lamb souvlaki with pita and beetroot dip.

Having checked off one of the items on his bucket list, my husband joined me for sumptuous Greek dinner at DION. Between mouthfuls of souvlaki and pita, we talked about our day and tried to prove which one of us had a better time.

27th December 2014: Initiation to the Laneways – Vicolino Cafe on Degraves Street served the most surreal Egg Benedict I had ever tasted in my life. This breakfast perked me up so much that I immediately landed a detailed sketch of a creperie right opposite Vicolino in my sketchbook, while shuffling on the tiny stool I was perched on, in the cramped corner of a grungy back lane riddled with graffiti, exposed wires and torn posters. It was unconventionally atmospheric and an unkempt tipsy man slinking through the shadows with his beer bottle fitted the scenery seamlessly. Reams of tourists and locals streaming in and out of the narrow cobbled street, eating, drinking, shopping, people watching, fed to the palpable energy. We kept coming back like hopeless addicts.

27th Dec / Melbourne : Breakfast in the laneways;State Library of Victoria; Captain Cook's Cottage

27th Dec / Melbourne : I sketched this cute eatery called ‘Creperie’ while having breakfast at Cafe Vicolino on Degraves Street; a portion of the magnificent La Trobe Reading Room was tackled inside the State Library of Victoria; a tiny Captain Cook’s Cottage in the extreme right was sketched in the late evening under the tall shadows of English Elms.

Part of the day was spent admiring the fabulous octagonal La Trobe Reading Room in the State Library of Victoria. Ever since I read Pico Iyer’s insightful article ‘Shelter from the storm’, where he says, “..one of the best places to visit in any new city is the library”, I’ve been actively frequenting these emblems of stillness. Imagine cozying up to a musty smelling tome on a period reading table fitted with bottle green-reading lamps, under a spectacular white dome! I was wielding a sketchbook, but it had the same effect.

By the time we ambled through the splendid Fitzroy Gardens and arrived at the doorstep of Captain Cook’s Cottage, nobody was home. It was way past visiting hours. But the silky grass, the lulling breeze and the slanting rays of the golden sun causing the stately English Elms to cast tall sombre shadows called for a brief stopover. I captured some memories on paper before ending the day at Nandos. I sketched our food order number, which was 29, while listening to our neighbours blithely discussing their recent trip to Singapore. They sounded very pleased.

28th December 2014: Away from the CBD – Starting the day with a Laneway breakfast was a no brainer! Back on Degraves, Cafe Andiamo served the most scrumptious crepes with strawberries and vanilla ice-cream that melted by the time I finished my sketch. Well, the day was hot. And by the time we finished a 2 hours walk along the waterfront from Southbank Promenade to South Wharf along the Yarra, we were cooked and toasted by the blazing sun.

28th Dec / Melbourne : Laneway breakfast

28th Dec / Melbourne : Laneway breakfast at Cafe Andiamo

A very long ‘passion fruit smoothie’ break later, we landed ourselves on a silky green patch of land beside the Ornamental Lake in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, where I sketched this scene because sometimes you’re so overwhelmed with what you see, you need to express your joy and gratitude in some way.

The evening was quiet except for the screeching of the cockatoos. It was getting colder, pleasant actually. I took my shoes off and rubbed my feet on the grass, releasing a raw earthy smell. A slanting golden light coloured the trees, plants, bushes and shrubs of variegated foliage, arranged like little jewels along a turquoise lake, that held their reflection in absolute stillness. It was one of those rare moments when you sense a primordial connection with your environment.

28th Dec

Dinner was at Blue Train, back at Southgate promenade, which was now teeming with evening strollers and joggers. The lesson that I took away from eating here, was to garnish my future homemade pizzas with spring onions – it makes a phenomenal difference!

29th December 2014: Taking it easy – Just when I thought nothing could top my love for the stately English Elms of Fitzroy Gardens, we found the conservatory. It is one happy rendezvous of plants and flowers in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colours, arranged in pleasing designs. There are empty cages hanging from the top, a tiny bridge  with railings at the centre and old fashioned benches for people to rest and take photos. Soft muted light streams in through the beautiful arched transom windows. Obviously I sketch.

Lunch was at Cumulus Inc. at nearby Flinders lane and I cannot say this enough – If you’re ever in Melbourne, eat here at least once. Unparalleled customer service (which seems to be the norm in Melbourne, though) pales in comparison with the food. Your taste buds will experience a firework of flavours. Probably this should be their tagline.

While I was sketching the conservatory, an old British couple breathed over my neck. They were pretty intrigued and while leaving said. "You're clever, aren't you?".

29th Dec / Melbourne: While I was sketched in the conservatory, an old British couple breathed over my neck. They were pretty intrigued by what I was doing and while leaving said. “You’re a clever girl, aren’t you?”. Ahh..ummm..mmm..I’ll be better prepared next time.

St. Kilda’s Pier hogged our last evening in Melbourne. We strolled hand in hand (more so coz I needed something to cling on to) on the historic pier with waves crashing on either side and the wind throwing us off balance. It was an exciting change from what we’ve been doing past four days. The day ended with an intensely golden sunset and the sight of penguins swimming to the shore at dusk.


People watching and more coffee chronicles

Working as a freelancer from the confines of ones home isn’t as palatable as the images it may conjure. Besides a disciplined work environment – which needs to be strictly self imposed by freelancers – you miss out on the day to day office camaraderie, the human connection, the collective sense of belonging to a place.

A starbucks outlet

While not contesting on the shade of the grass on either side, when I find the scales tipping in other’s favour i.e  when I start feeling cooped up and lonely, I simply carry my work, 5 mins from my house, to the nearest coffee shop, where I get people to sit around me while minding their own business, listen to pleasant music and have access to air-conditioning, wifi and plug points.

To my surprise and delight, there is no dearth of the like minded, so much so that between 9 to 5, it is hard to find a place.

There are official meetings presided by dapper looking men and women over cappuccino and cookies. And these madams and sirs care to perch their prissy bottoms only on the plush leather sofas with handrest (also the most coveted in the entire cafe) by the windows with the lovely view. If this coincides your entry, it pays to linger around, as they usually leave as soon as they finish their drink or their talking.

School kids working on their assignments

School kids working on their assignments

But the same theory is redundant when it comes to the cafe’s biggest headcount – the scraggy school kids finishing assignments over a glass of plain water and maybe, just maybe a tall sized green tea frappe that was finished eons ago and has the frothy bits left at the bottom. Now, they cost the cafe, the entire upper and lower deck with high stools and convenient plug points.

And they also kind of live here, only getting up for toilet and food breaks (which is usually a packet of chips).  While away which sometimes is for an hour, their personal laptops in dayglo covers, scribbled notebooks, stationaries, chargers, headphones, snacks, wet wipes and sweatshirts scattered on the table will stand sentry. Yes, it’s Singapore, nothing gets stolen but avoid this zone like plague, if you wish to be seated in this lifetime.

More students

More students

Then there are the moms. All kinds of moms. The ones feeding chocolate fudge cake to their  primary schoolers sitting upright (only at the behest of mommy), and doing their home works; and the ones with toddlers learning to use cutlery and making a gruesome mess by repeatedly stabbing the delicate chicken puff, while their eyes are peeled on the iPad; and lastly the pregnant ones with a wailing brat in tow, struggling to get a heaving stroller (from the weight of groceries) inside the cafe door with one hand and shoving the pacifier into the child’s mouth with another .

Al fresco seating at the cafe

Al fresco seating at the cafe

Moms populate the cafe’s alfresco seating so their kids can run around and chase pigeons, when they can tear away from their wondrous gadgets. If you’ve been around for a while like me, you’ll know – smaller the kid, battier is the mother, and the fidgety she gets, higher is the probability of finding a seat. So hover like a bee over a bed of flowers. Your luck might just turn.

The rest belong to the mixed bag, where taking your chances could be be a bit hit and miss. Like the older school kids in uniforms caught in between school and private tuitions or college goers, congregation of elderly people or maids on their off days. They could leave in an hour or lounge for half a day. I’d play it by the ear.

Possibly a fashion designer

Possibly a fashion designer

But if you are desperate for a seat and nothing else has been working, you might want to sneak up on those sitting all by themselves – alone with their coffee and reading a book/newspaper or updating their blog or looking at Google maps. Most of the time, they get bored with themselves too easily and leave. Jump right in.

Saving the best for the last because you spot this kind only if you are alert and have been paying attention – the kind that rolls in, does their business and leaves. Pin your hopes on anybody without a laptop. Or without a smartphone, but that’s asking too much in Singapore.
An evening at Starucks

An evening at Starbucks

Watch out for people with big shopping bags, or those with dogs, or those taking quick interviews ( I’ve been witness to many job interviews over coffee – lasts as long as the drink), making a hurried presentation, mulling over houses with property agents or bickering like the two local film producers I came across, trying to prove whose job sucked more. I could swear, their heated debate rose to a crescendo but cut out as soon as the last drop of coffee trickled down their throat. After which they left and I moved in.

It is within this group that, if you are lucky, you get a seat that isn’t already choped – a typical Singaporean phenomenon of reserving seats by placing a harmless tissue or hasn’t been pooped upon by one of the three notorious pigeons that pick at the leftovers.

I have honed my seat grabbing skills over three years of Starbucks patronage at my neighbouring outlet where I’ve worked, planned vacations, played scrabble, finished several tomes and drank gallons of coffee and tea. And only recently, have I started sketching and it isn’t surprising that in my 90 page sketchbook, which I finished recently, there are more than twenty sketches done at this location of the same individuals, groups and clusters I talk about. I observed them only because I sketched them.
This is why I accompany my stories with hand
drawn sketches instead of photographs. More than any other medium, sketching requires complete immersion of senses, gets you to pay attention and slow down.
Any sketch when looked at several days or months later, evokes the moment, in its tiniest details.  Like this hand carved wooden panda bear pen that was sold to me at the cafe by an ex-convict with heavily tattooed legs.
Hand carved panda pen sold by an ex-convict

Hand carved panda bear pen sold by an ex-convict

The opening line of his very impressive speech, that led to the sale was, ” Do you believe in second chances?”.  Cheesy, yes? But the sketch helped me pin that memory down.